Chatbots and the cult of technology

Make way! The tech bros have arrived. They’re going to save the world. And they’re going to do it with such speed. A couple of weekend all-nighters will prove their macho credentials as they produce something in fast, fast time, because lads and lassies, forget the quality, feel the speed, oh the glorious speed!

Hey presto—like magic—out will roll the newest of new awe-inspiring technology that we must all take orders from and bow down to and honor and respect and obey. Even if it is the latest crummy piece of software with an excruciating interface, dodgy data, and wildly optimistic assumptions that is guaranteed to make people’s lives a nightmare.

But our glorious tech visionaries and designers will not care, they will not even know. Because they are busy planning their next failed tech project in waiting. Because that’s the way it is. These visionaries would never consider dirtying their pretty hands with maintenance and repair. They are the creatives! They are the innovators!

I remember chairing a Web design conference in San Francisco in 1999. Someone had just spoken on the need for good navigation on a website and they got polite applause. I thought their ideas were brilliant but the audience was not quite as enthusiastic.

Then this cool French guy got on stage and he wanted to talk about Julie, an innovative virtual assistant, what we now call a chatbot. I thought, this is entertaining but is in no way practical or achievable. He got rapturous applause and was swarmed at the break, people shoving business cards into his hand like they were presenting offerings to a deity.

I looked on in puzzlement. I shouldn’t be chairing this conference, I thought. Either I don’t have a clue or this audience is clueless. I was interested in navigation and search design, metadata, content quality. They just wanted new tech that would make their lives easier so that they didn’t have to worry about navigation, search design, metadata and content quality.

They wanted a quick tech fix. And, just as importantly, they wanted fun. And also they were CV builders. They knew that their next job interview would go so much better if they were able to talk about launching an innovative virtual assistant called Julie (that had zero chance of being useful) rather than explaining that they had spent hundreds of hours deleting and cleaning up content.

In 1995, I helped launch a Web design agency called Nua. We were quite successful for a while but the biggest criticism that other agencies would make of us was that we were boring. We were trying to achieve standards in design, trying to understand such things as how wide a search box should be on a page based on average number of words per search. Most other agencies were pushing Flash Intros, which in essence were like TV ads on a website, but they were cool and for years a great many clients ruined the user experience with them.

The Flash Intros are back as auto-play videos, helping to burn the planet with their wholly unnecessary CO2 emissions. The wheel keeps turning and it sometimes feels that we are forever stuck in a world of learning and forgetting and rediscovering ‘new’ things which are actually old ideas.

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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